FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD SAVITRI WAS UNUSUALLY QUIET on her first visit home after her gauna—a traditional ceremony, common in Uttar Pradesh, marking a bride’s arrival at her in-laws’ house. “Everything is fine, didi,” she insisted when photojournalist Saumya Khandelwal asked about her withdrawn demeanour. “I was seeing this girl, who I had become fond of, change over time. Some part of her had died. And I was never able to see that part again,” Khandelwal, who knew Savitri well by this point, recounted.
For young girls in Shravasti, a district in Uttar Pradesh near the Nepal border, childhood is fleeting. They are married off early, shifting homes and families at ages as young as eight years old. Families plan in advance for the girls’ move to their husbands’ homes, but the shift from the parents’ home, ritualised by the gauna, sometimes occurs years after the wedding. The transition to the husband’s home is often fraught and girls are frequently left with a fragile sense of belonging. A photograph in Khandelwal’s work “Child brides of Shravasti” depicts the girls as three spectral shadows on the bare brick walls of a house. It gestures at the liminal space that the girls occupy in the deeply patriarchal society, as they are viewed as liabilities by both sets of families.
Uttar Pradesh has over two million child brides and Shravasti has a particularly high incidence of child marriage. The fertility rate in the district is among the highest in the country—on an average, a girl in Shravasti gives birth to five or six children in her lifetime. In December 2015, while visiting her hometown, Lucknow, Khandelwal made a detour and visited Shravasti to assess whether these statistics matched the reality on ground. She was surprised that the issue appeared more serious than reported, and began documenting child marriage and the social systems that enable it.
Child marriage was first diagnosed as a social evil in 1860, when the consummation of a marriage with a girl younger than ten years was declared to be rape. In 1929, the Child Marriage Restraint Act prohibited child marriage and placed restrictions on the solemnisation of such marriages. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 introduced further restrictions, including increasing the punishment terms for participating in or abetting a child marriage and allowing that an under-age marriage can be rendered void if either party involved asks for it to be annulled.
Khandelwal encountered young married girls who were living either with their husbands or parents. She found that there were only four reported cases of child marriage from Uttar Pradesh in 2016, in which none of the four accused were convicted. Khandelwal also observed a palpable disregard for laws relating to child marriage in Shravasti, with little or no fear of any legal repercussions.